About 1 in 3 American adults have experienced sleep-related problems iin the past year and about 10% of the U.S. population have chronic or severe insomnia. It often remains untreated for long periods of time and insomnia can be serious. Insomnia can impact on work functions, daily chores, child rearing and even relationships. It can affect a person’s physical, mental and emotional health. Some studies have shown that the risk of certain life-threatening diseases like heart attacks and strokes increase with chronic insomnia.
Do I have insomnia?
This is a common question that many people ask to themselves after a few nights of difficulty sleeping. Insomnia is a broad term to describe various different types of sleep disturbances. For some people it is a problem falling asleep, for others it is a problem staying asleep and waking up too early, and may also include severe sleepiness during the day. It is only considered as insomnia if it persists for more than a month.
It is possible that a person can have insomnia and not even realize it. Instead the insomnia manifests with other symptoms which may be concerning. This includes difficulty concentrating, poor memory, impaired coordination, sensitivity to light and sound, tension headaches and changes in appetite. Fatigue is a common symptom that arises with insomnia as is sleepiness during the day.
Read more on sleep deprivation effects.
How To Spot Insomnia
The odd night of having sleep problems of any type should not be immediately labeled as insomnia. Sometimes these occasional sleep disruptions occur for clearly identifiable reasons, like it is not uncommon to experience sleeplessness the night before an important day. However, if there is any type of sleep difficulty for at least three or more nights a week, and if this persists for more than a month then it can be labeled as insomnia. Usually the duration of sleep is 6 hours or less at each session.
Insomnia can affect any person of any age. It tends to be more common with one or more risk factors:
- Being female (possibly related to menstrual cycle changes).
- Being 60 years or older.
- Changing works shifts and working night shifts.
- Long distance travel across timezones.
- Grief and psychological stress.
- Mental health disorders like depression, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
- Certain prescription drugs and substance abuse.
- Medical conditions that affect the ability to fall asleep or stay asleep.
There is growing evidence to support claims that prolonged use of electronic devices like mobile phones, tablets and computers can contribute to sleep problems. Similarly acid reflux (GERD) which tends to worsen at night may also play a role in insomnia.
Difficulty Falling Asleep
Not all of us fall asleep immediately once we get into bed. However, if it takes more than 30 minutes to fall asleep then this may be a sign of insomnia. It is important to note that this refers to a problem falling asleep at a time that a person is accustomed to sleeping and without any preceding naps that may impact on normal sleep time. For most people this refers to difficulty falling asleep at night in regular surroundings with no disturbances.
Difficulty Staying Asleep
Most of the time we should stay asleep for the entire duration that encompasses sufficient sleep for an individual. There should be no interruptions in the sleep cycle. In insomnia, a person may not be able to stay asleep or wake repeatedly and not fall asleep again. However, this does not apply to situations where the sleep is disturbed like due to noise in the surroundings.
Early Waking Without Falling Asleep
Once asleep, a person should remain in the sleep state for approximately 8 hours. Some people are accustomed to sleeping slightly less while others may sleep for longer hours. However, with insomnia a person awakes much earlier where the sleep cycle lasts for less than 6 hours. While mid-sleep awakening can happen to any person from time to time, if a person cannot go back to sleep thereafter then it is considered as insomnia.
Unrefreshed Sleep with Fatigue
The sleep cycle is a recuperation phase of the day where our body is able to rest. Normally we should feel refreshed and energetic with sufficient sleep. On the other hand insufficient sleep leaves us unrefreshed and with fatigue the following day. There are instances where a person may not be able to recall or identify a sleep problem despite this unrefreshed and fatigued feeling. This can still be a sign of insomnia.
Sleepiness During the Day
As a result of the insufficient sleep the night before, a person tends to feel sleepy during the day. This is also known as excessive daytime sleepiness. Sometimes a person may fall asleep while sitting, during tasks and even while driving. It has to be differentiated from sleepiness that may arise with boredom, unusually strenous activity, an afternoon slump or even fatigue and sleepiness from skipping meals.
Confused and Clumsy
With inadequate sleep, physical and mental functioning is impaired to varying degrees. A person tends to make mistakes, experience poor coordination and tends to be accident-prone. Often this is collectively labeled as clumsiness. Difficulty remembering, reduced attention span and even difficulty making decisions may also arise. A person seems confused or even disorientated to others.
Other Signs and Symptoms
A host of other signs and symptoms may also arise with insomnia. Sometimes it can be due to the cause of insomnia. These signs and symptoms include:
- Tension headaches
- Sensitivity to sound and light
- Gastrointestinal disturbances
- Anxiety and irritability
- Changes in appetite
Read more on insufficient sleep symptoms.
Is insomnia dangerous?
Insomnia can be dangerous for various reasons both in the short and long term. The impairement of physical and mental functioning can make a person prone to accidents. This is particularly dangerous when driving a vehicle or operating heavy machinery. The danger is therefore not limited to the person with the insomnia but puts family, friends and even work colleagues as risk, as well as the general public.
In the long term, insomnia can directly impact on physical and mental health. A person with chronic insomnia is at a greater risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. They are also more likely to become overweight or obese. Poor performance at academic and work activities may have an impact on career. These individuals are also more likely to abuse substances. Therefore insomnia can not only be dangerous, sometimes it can even be deadly.